Fearless: Director's Cut

Fearless: Director's Cut (2005)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Jet Li, Yong Dong, Hee Ching Paw
Extras: 3 Cuts of the movie, Featurette

When it hit theaters a few years ago, "Fearless" was supposed to be Jet Li's last period martial arts film, much to the dismay of his countless fans around the globe. Well, fortunately for us, it turned out to be not entirely true, as the actor has since appeared in the pseudo-period martial arts comedy "The Forbidden Kingdom" along with Jackie Chan, and even the blockbuster "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" an action comedy that also allowed him to stay true to form, although on a comparably smaller scale – the part that is, not the movie.

Anyway, under the direction of Ronny Yu, one of Hong Kong's most shining modern directors, Li couldn't have picked a better movie for his presumed exit from the genre,
as "Fearless" is a mesmerizing film that makes its debut on Blu-Ray Disc now.

"Fearless" tells the real life story of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) one of the most infamous martial artists in Chinese history, who is generally considered as the originator of modern day Wushu, the sport of martial arts as opposed to its use as a mere fighting tool.

After growing up the son of a traditional martial arts master, Huo follows his vocation and becomes a martial arts champion. Undefeated in countless challenges he is a living legend and ready to be crowned champion of the entire province. After one fateful fight, in which he accidentally kills his opponent, Huo's world is forever changed by the revenge of the fallen fighter's relatives. He finds himself on a path to redemption in the country side until one day his conscience catches up with him and Yuanjia returns to his roots and once again accepts the challenges of some of the most powerful fighters in the country – only this time to show that martial arts can be used for good and not only for mere destruction.

Set before the turbulent backdrop of China in the early 1900s, a time when the country was extremely vulnerable to foreign exploitation as various powers had taken control of the country, "Fearless" features some of the most remarkable martial arts sequences I have seen in years – being on par with classics only, such as "Wing Chun." As if he had to prove himself Jet Li throws himself into the part of Huo Yuanjia both in and outside the ring, making this his most memorable performance since "Once Upon A Time In China." Apart from the character and the story itself, the range of martial arts on display in the film is what will strike fans of the genre as remarkable if not staggering. Not limited to the same styles over and over again, here we have an incredibly potent mix of styles and techniques as Huo has to face different opponent and accommodate their fighting styles. While the focus of the film is on the martial arts fights, the film also offers up a depth of character that is touching and gives the film as a whole dimension. Ronny Yu once again knows how to perfectly balance action with subtle moments and humanity and puts Jet Li's boyish charm to best use throughout.

To tells its story, "Fearless" uses wonderful images and editing. It shows that the filmmakers had a clear vision when making this movie and Ronny Yu pulls it all together seemingly effortlessly so that every moment is played out for maximum effect. The film is not as colorful and overtly dazzling as some of his more fantastic films and goes for a much more realistic period look throughout, and does so flawlessly. Whether the camera is circling, slowly panning, zooming or static, Yu always finds the perfect angle and way to present each moment. Occasionally the images are so powerful that the camera alone invokes tremendous atmosphere and emotions while the actors stand virtually still. Once again, it is crystal clear here that Ronny Yu is one of the best director's the world has to offer these days.

As a special treat for fans, this Blu-Ray version of the movie gives you the chance to see the film in any one of three versions, as Universal has included the theatrical cut, the unrated version as well as a new Director's Cut of the film that runs 40 minutes longer than the other versions, using seamless branching to easily fit it all on the disc.

The transfer itself is wonderful and absolutely clean, bringing out all the details of the production design, making it marvelous to watch. In fact occasionally I found myself caught up in looking at textures and backgrounds as opposed to the action on the screen, seeing even minute dust in the actual sets, for example. With a strong color reproduction, the movie looks tremendously alive at all times and plays its muscles very well during the scenes in the countryside where lush greens bathe the screen in varying gradients and hues. There is a nighttime shot towards the end of the film, however, in which some banding is visible as Jet Li's character looks up at the sky, but that's about the only problem I found with this transfer. Black levels are extremely balanced, rendering deep, solid shadows that firmly root the image. They also make the contrast possible that allow every bit of detail in the picture to retain its proper texture and dimensional look. It is clearly a transfer that has fascinated me and reminds you to properly appreciate all your high def home theater upgrades.

The disc properly defaults to the original Mandarin audio track with English subtitles turned on but also offers an optional English dub. The audio track is presented in a DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio format making sure not a single bit of information is lost. As a result the track is wonderfully clear and transparent, making for quite a presentation, as the discrete surround channels are engaged aggressively and frequently to generate a sound field that is wide and incredibly spatial. The mix is balanced and very dynamic giving the film a flawless sonic presentation that is rich and solid. Dialogues are well integrated and always remain understandable. Sound effects are notable for their realism and the way they are used in the sound field to create depth throughout.

The only extra on the release is the featurette "A Fearless Journey," presented in standard definition. The deleted scenes that were part of the HD-DVD and DVD version are no longer included as the material effectively made it back into the movie as part of the Director's Cut.

"A Fearless Journey" is a production featurette with interviews by Ronny Yu, Jet Li and other crew members. It begins with the sensational announcement that after 25 years and 32 movies, this would be Jet Li's final martial arts film – which as mentioned openings has turned out to be not entirely true. From there, however, it focuses on the making of the film itself and the historical background of the events unfolding in the movie. Running 15 minutes, it is a great featurette with a lot of soul that discusses many of the challenges and approaches to the movie.

I always find it a disappointment when really good movies get the short shrift with extras while standard Hollywood dreck gets the royal 3-disc treatment. I feel the same way with "Fearless." While the featurette is nice there is so much more that is not being covered here that it is painful. Why is there no commentary track by Ronny Yu and/or Jet Li? Why is there no reference to the real-life story of Huo Yuanjia? What about a tribute to Jet Li's martial arts career and a look at these films? How about the amazing history of the places the story takes place in like Shanghai, the Chinese countryside and more? These and countless other aspects could have been covered in bonus materials but sadly Universal missed out on this opportunity.

Other than that, "Fearless" is one of the best martial arts movies of recent memory and arrives in a high definition version here that comes highly recommended. Go, check it out. You will love it, especially since this Director's Cut is available only on Blu-Ray Disc!